“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing”

excerpt 4The following is the last  in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

As the COVID-19 outbreak spread across the United States in the first half of 2020, healthcare workers found themselves on the front lines of efforts to stop the pandemic’s advance. One in six of those workers was an immigrant, including almost 29 percent of physicians, a study by the New American Economy found.

 

Immigrants work in even higher concentrations in other segments of medicine—comprising almost 37 percent of home healthcare workers, for example. “In the areas where it is most critical, immigrants are playing even greater roles—serving as the first person you might see at the hospital intake, to nurses, to the doctors themselves,” said Andrew Lim, NAE’s director of quantitative research.

 

NAE estimates that some forty-five thousand healthcare workers in the United States are undocumented, most of them serving in supporting roles such as aides, laundry personnel, and food preparers. Another sixty-two thousand are DACA recipients. As virus infections surged across the country, many of those DACA workers were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the Trump administration’s executive order to eliminate their protections, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.

 

“To remove healthcare workers at this critical moment in time, as healthcare needs are Deconstructed cover_Revised1immense, seems to not make sense,” Lim said. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Trump’s promise to rescind DACA anew still casts doubt over the workers’ future.

 

For the undocumented, working in healthcare poses a dual risk: daily potential exposure to deadly viruses and other diseases and a lack of access to medical treatment if they get sick. The workers themselves are in danger, of course, but their situation also creates a broader peril in public health. Workers who may be infected and show up for work anyway, out of fear of losing pay or jobs, could spread the virus to others.

 

The pandemic brought to light the critical roles that immigrants play in the U.S. economy. They’re active in services from cleaning, to deliveries, to food preparation and supply. In the orchards of California and the fields of South Texas, agricultural workers found themselves carrying letters from their employers declaring them “essential” after the Department of Homeland Security deemed that field workers were “critical to the food supply chain.”

 

“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” forty-three-year-old Nancy Silva, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, told the New York Times. Silva, who was working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, California, lives with the constant threat of deportation. The letter eased her fears, but it didn’t eliminate them.

 

Like thousands of other migrant agriculture workers, she is caught between the reality of America’s economic needs and the irrational vitriol of its politics. She is both essential and unwanted at the same time.

 

Meat packers rely on immigrant labor. As much as 50 percent of the industry’s workforce is made up of undocumented workers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and East African nations.

 

As the pandemic spread across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 3 percent of workers in more than a hundred processing plants tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020. That number may be low because of limited testing, CDC researchers said. Because workers in meat plants must do their jobs in close conditions and can’t distance themselves from each other, the virus has advanced more rapidly through their ranks. 

 

As workers got sick—and at least twenty died—meatpackers faced shutdowns that threatened to create shortages in supermarkets nationwide. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat producers as critical infrastructure to keep the processing plants running.

 

The industry, which like construction faced a shortage of workers before the pandemic, has raised pay and offered bonuses to healthy workers. But as more in their ranks showed symptoms of the virus, requiring a fourteen-day self-quarantine, labor shortages loomed, and the meat supply chain remained under pressure.

 

Further up that chain, farmers, ranchers. and other food suppliers that rely on immigrants to stay afloat have struggled as well. With restaurants and schools closed, many farmers couldn’t find markets for their goods. Some had to destroy crops. In Washington state, farmers amassed a one-billion-pound surplus of potatoes.

 

Dairy farmers, already facing lower prices before the pandemic, were hit hard by declining demand, dumping as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk a day, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.

 

Chicken processors, meanwhile, had to euthanize tens of thousands of birds because of reduced capacity at processing plants.

 

By early April 2020, Dallas restaurateur Jim Baron had closed his four Tex-Mex locations and laid off most of his workforce. He still kept a little money coming in with take-out service, but in the first week of the month, his revenue was just twenty-five thousand dollars, a plunge from two hundred seventy-five thousand dollars for the same week in 2019. Restaurants use current revenue to pay past obligations, so when the revenue nosedived, Baron struggled to pay vendors for deliveries they’d already made and employees for work they’d already done.

 

“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “And it’s the reality facing every restaurant in the United States.”

 

Like the struggling meatpackers, farmers, and ranchers, Baron had many employees who were immigrants living paycheck to paycheck. Forced to lay them off, he worried that many wouldn’t return to the restaurant business when the economy recovers because they would find work elsewhere. Multiplied across other industries, the loss of jobs and businesses is likely to be devastating to America’s attempt to rebuild its economy.

 

“They’re really a huge contributing member of the system, and we’re going to lose that economic value,” Baron said of immigrant workers. “Once the smoke clears on this crisis, we’re going to have to rebuild, and we’re going to need [immigrants] and their work is going to be appreciated. I think they have a chance, you know, of being seen differently by the average American.”

 

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic threw economic assumptions into chaos. Pessimists wonder how the United States will deal with unemployment levels that by late May approached 15 percent—the highest since the Great Depression. Will more than twenty million desperate out-of-work Americans finally accept the menial jobs they just months earlier renounced? Will those jobs even exist as businesses fail?

 

President Trump has already barred both legal and illegal immigrants from entering the country during the pandemic. Will he extend those restrictions and for how long? With the U.S. suffering the most cases and deaths in the global health crisis, will anyone want to come here to work if they could? Will there be better opportunities elsewhere?

 

“The pandemic has definitely created uncertainty,” Stan said. “But I feel like construction will rebound quickly. There is just so much demand for roads, buildings, houses, and so forth. I do think that immigration will be restricted, and we must find a way to encourage young men and women in our high schools to enter the trades. I doubt many will want to work in a job that offers no training, no benefits, no career. And I think they want to be tax-paying citizens and contribute to a better society. Fixing this broken immigration system, especially dealing in a humane way with the eleven million already here, would be a great start.”

 

In early 2020, construction workers were designated as essential workers. Stan Marek sees a correlation between the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the rebuilding effort to recover from COVID-19. Like Baron, he believes immigrants will be vital.

 

“Those of us who lived through Hurricane Harvey should remember who participated in the cleanup and rebuild of our city—mucking out houses, tearing out wet sheetrock, hauling off trash, and other ‘dirty jobs’ that no one else wanted to do,” he said. “Where would we have been without these essential workers? Now more than ever we must get serious about building a resilient workforce for the next disaster. Ignoring the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of workers in the shadows that we are relying on in time of crisis makes no sense.”

 

To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

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“This is what happens when you have real employees”

excerpt 3

The following is the third in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

Cars and trucks—mostly pickups—flow into the field behind the Knights of Columbus Hall in north Houston. The hall is old, but the event is older. For more than eighty years, the Marek Family of Companies—which started business in 1938 as Marek Brothers

Sheetrock—has hosted a Christmas party for employees. Started by the grandsons of Czech immigrants, the company today is the largest specialty drywall and interiors installer in the southwestern U.S.

In the final weeks of 2019, more than a thousand current and former employees lined up for a barbecue lunch followed by an awards ceremony that recognized long-time workers. More than three hundred of them have worked there for at least twenty years, and some for more than fifty.

As we walk across the field toward the hall, Stan Marek, the company’s chief executive Deconstructed cover_Revised1and the son of one of its founders, sweeps his hand across the sea of vehicles. “Look at how many of these trucks are new,” he says. “This is what happens when you have real employees. They can afford to buy things like trucks and houses.”

By “real” employees he means full-time hires on his payroll, not workers who are mischaracterized as independent contractors and doing piecework for anyone who needs them that day. The distinction is significant in the construction business. In the past twenty years, the industry has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over immigration. These misclassified workers and the companies that hire them have upended decades of economic convention. Unlike Marek, many employers rely on undocumented immigrants because they are so easy to misclassify—and thus to marginalize. Their bosses see them as largely disposable, or at least interchangeable, paying them in cash, and providing no safety training, health benefits, or additional money for overtime.

This keeps costs down but does little to build a skilled and reliable workforce, encourage loyalty, or provide financial security for the workers—or the companies themselves.

Stan has long believed construction companies’ reliance on this system hurts workers and the industry. He suggested that I write this book to show how the impact of illegal immigration has eroded wages and degraded working conditions and quality in the industry. He also wanted a platform to illustrate his proposed “ID and Tax” solution. But it’s outside the Knights of Columbus hall on an overcast December day that the point of everything Stan has worked tirelessly for hits home in the most basic way.

Employees who get a regular paycheck can verify their employment to a bank. That means they can apply for financing to buy a new truck. “Off-the-books” contractors working for cash must settle for whatever vehicle they can afford for the money they have in their pocket. Unknowingly, they underpin and perpetuate a shadow economy from which they have little chance to escape.

Stan talks a lot about the need for workers to be brought out of the shadows. The effort would require that they pay taxes on their income and, in turn, that their employers fund payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance, as Marek does. The money that Stan pays employees begins a ripple that fans out across the economy. His workers have a verifiable source of regular income.

This lets them finance a truck, sign a satellite TV contract, buy a house, or put in a pool. In other words, they participate fully in the economy.

In contrast, the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants who live in the United States work for cash in the shadow economy. They may buy groceries and electronics. Some may even manage to purchase homes. But their participation in mainstream economic activities is limited. They don’t get the rewards of a steady paycheck or a retirement plan. At the same time, they extract a higher price on society in unanticipated ways. Rather than scheduling regular doctor visits, they may choose the emergency room for routine ailments—the most expensive form of medical care.

Ultimately, local taxpayers foot the bill. In this case and in myriad other instances, the economy—and thus the country—doesn’t receive the full benefit that it does from employees who work on the books, pay taxes, and contribute to the funding of their medical and other expenses. In Texas, about 24 percent of all construction workers are undocumented, the result of decades of immigration laws out of step with economic reality.

Illegal immigration stems from complex economic, legal, and political factors that many Americans don’t understand. They’ve had little reason to delve into the intricacies or the origins. Most native-born citizens know only the romantic tales of ancestors, fighting in the Revolution or coming through Ellis Island, searching for a better life, and enduring perilous journeys and hard work before achieving financial stability and the American Dream.

Immigrants have long been the source of America’s economic strength. Yet our immigration laws have always been ill-defined and arbitrary, based largely on the fears of the moment and aimed at limiting particular groups of people. These fears—and the sources of them—have ebbed and flowed over the decades.

Today anxiety over immigration is omnipresent and it means that the United States has evolved from a country open to almost anyone to a country that few can come to legally. In fact, our borders can be closed to new arrivals with the stroke of a president’s pen. As the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 engulfed the nation, President Donald Trump reacted by suspending almost all legal immigration to the United States, at least temporarily.

Stan is trying to bring a rational approach to a debate that has consistently shown little appetite for rationality.

The federal government has contributed to the confusion surrounding illegal immigration. Officials have enforced existing immigration laws poorly and inconsistently. This is partly because the government doesn’t have the money or the resources to deport all eleven million illegal immigrants, as President George W. Bush noted in 2007.

Even with more recent attempts to step up deportations—and with the feds’ growing reliance on local law enforcement to assist and help pay for the initial arrests and detentions of undocumented immigrants—the government is doing little to reduce the number of undocumented people already in the country.

Some immigration foes argue that the cost and feasibility of mass deportations don’t matter. They say that “illegal is illegal,” and every undocumented immigrant should be rounded up and sent back to his or her country of origin. They seem to think their ancestors arrived “the right way,” and today’s undocumented immigrants are coming “the wrong way.” In fact, immigrants at Ellis Island shared more in common with the Latinos showing up at the southern border than they do with those who receive visas.

No one came to Ellis Island with permission. What changed was not the attraction of America for immigrants or the circumstances of their arrival, but the policies enacted by those who were already here.

Calls for mass deportations of illegal immigrants ignore economic reality. Beyond the prohibitive costs of processing so many people, removing millions of workers from the economy could stifle productivity and trigger a recession.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the U.S. economy was shuttered, the government designated workers in agriculture, food processing, and construction as “essential,” regardless of their immigration status. Others lost their jobs and were left to fend for themselves without the social or economic safety nets provided for legal residents. Yet as the economy recovers, it may once again turn to immigrants—both legal and illegal—for some of the most vital services, just as the country has in the recovery from other disasters.

A rational approach to mending our inconsistent policies requires an economic solution to illegal immigration. Such a change would consider not just the costs of enforcement but also weigh the potential benefits of reform against the price of perpetuating a failing system and a shadow economy.

Focusing on the economics of illegal immigration makes sense because most immigrants who arrive illegally come in pursuit of an economic benefit: a job. Yet our immigration laws have never been based on economics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Texas construction industry: Here a shortage of labor—legal or undocumented—has left the industry struggling to meet demand.

Native-born applicants are not flooding job sites looking for construction work. Since the late 1990s, Stan and his company have actively recruited from high schools, community colleges, and even prisons, yet their efforts haven’t attracted enough workers. Even today, despite Stan’s efforts, most young Americans prefer jobs less strenuous than construction.

The construction industry in America stands out for its inextricable link to the immigration story. Many companies like Marek were founded by the descendants of immigrants and, from their earliest days, provided jobs for other immigrants. The work was hard, but the pay was good enough for those workers to earn a middle-class living and carve out their piece of the American Dream.

As Stan’s workers ate barbecue at the Christmas lunch, he outlined his latest efforts in fighting for rational immigration reform. Most of those in the hall already knew that Stan met regularly with U.S. congressmen and state lawmakers, that he had funded organizations to change immigration policy, and that he frequently wrote guest newspaper columns advocating reform.

He told them about this book and a companion video series, “The RationalMiddle of Immigration.” He and other local business leaders are supporting the initiative to broaden public understanding of immigration. He said he hopes new knowledge will usher in political and social change.

After the lunch, a longtime Latino employee approached Stan. “Thank you,” he said, “for all you’re doing for us.” I didn’t know if he meant immigrants, Latinos, construction workers, or Marek employees. He could have meant all four.

To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

 

 

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‘We need to bring people out of the shadows’

harvey-construction-scaled

The following is the second in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

The rains began falling on Houston on August 25, 2017. Further down the coast, near Corpus Christi, a major hurricane with sustained winds of one hundred twenty miles an hour slammed ashore. Houston had endured its share of hurricanes and tropi­cal storms, but Hurricane Harvey was different. The storm didn’t leave. For five days, Harvey wobbled around central Texas, and its outer rain bands never departed from Houston’s skies. The killer storm unleashed thirty-four trillion gallons of rainfall, more than any storm in U.S. history. One part of the city got almost fifty-two inches, and the average for the area—roughly the size of New Jer­sey—was more than forty inches.

 

Houston was built on a flat, coastal plain intercut with bay­ous. As the deluge persisted, Deconstructed cover_Revised1those bayous began to rise. Streets flooded, then yards flooded, and eventually, tens of thousands of homes flooded. When the waters finally receded, Houston faced an unprecedented crisis.

 

Within days, damage estimates exceeded one hundred ninety billion dollars, making Harvey by far the costliest storm ever—more than the expense of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. AccuWeather estimated the destruction would shave 1 percent from the country’s gross domestic product.

 

Parts of Houston remained uninhabitable for months. Tens of thousands of homes across the state were destroyed and hun­dreds of thousands sustained some sort of damage. Even before the skies cleared, Houston, a city known for its resilience, began talking about how it would rebuild.

 

 “Harvey can be characterized as the largest housing disaster in the U.S.,” said Marvin Odum, the former Shell Oil president who served as Houston’s chief recovery officer. In all, an estimat­ed three hundred thousand homes were damaged or destroyed, creating a need for labor to rebuild on a massive scale.

 

For Stan Marek, the question wasn’t how, but who. With the construction industry already struggling under a labor shortage, who would do the work of rebuilding Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast? With the passage of the state law banning sanctuary cit­ies just months before the storm hit, the construction industry in Houston already was seeing its workforce decline. Many Latinos, both documented and undocumented, fled Texas amid growing concern that local police would start rounding up immigrants.

 

The state was scaring away the very workers Houston and other coastal cities battered by Harvey required to rebuild. Restoration of the Gulf Coast, Stan knew, would depend on an alternative to deportations, walls, and hateful rhetoric. It would need to draw on the large number of undocumented workers already in the city and the state.

 

“We need to find a way to bring those people out of the shad­ows, to allow them to work and to pay taxes, while they work on coming to some position of legal status,” Odum said. “When you try to recover from something like Harvey, over a period of the next several years, that’s an enormous surge of activity. As far as I’m concerned, we need all hands on deck.”

 

Stan recalled the response to Tropical Storm Allison, the clos­est thing in modern history to Harvey that Houston had seen. That storm had dumped twenty-seven inches of rain on Hous­ton in twenty-four hours in 2001, causing nine billion dollars in damage. Thousands of workers, many undocumented, flocked to the city to help with the rebuilding. Their efforts were welcomed, with few questions asked about their immigration status.

 

Sixteen years later, however, Texas was far less accommodating to the undocumented, even in the state’s time of need. While the sanctuary cities ban had been temporarily blocked by the courts in late summer of 2017, the sentiment was clear: undocumented workers weren’t welcome.

 

“I need a legal way to be able to access that workforce,” Odum said. That didn’t mean giving all workers blanket legal status, but at least giving them temporary status so they could work legally without fear of deportation.

 

As Texas struggled to find recruits for the rebuilding effort, con­struction demand was rising in other states. Workers in other cities had less reason to come to Houston to help with rebuilding, espe­cially since in many states, wages are higher than they are in Texas.

 

Stan viewed the Harvey recovery, with its need for additional construction workers, as an opportunity to change the tone of the immigration debate. In a guest column for the Houston Chron­icle in September 2017, he called for granting the six hundred thousand undocumented workers in Houston some type of legal status immediately. Other local business leaders supported his “ID and Tax” plan, calling for workers to be identified and put on company payrolls where their wages would be taxed as required of all full-time employees. Immigrants may have helped rebuild Houston after Allison, but many were taken advantage of by labor brokers. This time, Stan vowed, it would be different.

 

ID and Tax wouldn’t be carte-blanche amnesty. In ex­change for legal status, immigrant workers would consent to a background check and get a tamper-proof photo ID. Once the government determined they had committed no felonies, they would work for a sponsoring employer who agreed to cover their payroll taxes and provide accident insurance. The plan was simi­lar to how current work visas already are handled.

 

Stan remains determined to reverse the system of exploitation and abuse that holds back immigrants and hurts his industry. He seeks a rational policy that will bring the country’s more than eleven million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the mainstream economy. Stan reiterates the logic behind his thinking every chance he gets. These immigrants cannot vote or receive welfare, yet they work as productive members of society. Many have been illegally in the U.S. for decades and are as much a part of the landscape as legal citizens. Americans have already invested billions of dollars in educating their children. By iden­tifying these illegal immigrants and taxing them for working in the United States, governments will add more money to public coffers, improve wages and working conditions, and ensure the workers have needed protections without fearing deportation.

 

If Stan has his way, immigration reform would involve sever­al key steps, starting with the DREAM Act. Since 2001, Congress has flirted with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which, like DACA, would grant conditional residency for undocumented minors. If these immigrants meet additional qualifications, the act would create the opportunity for them to achieve permanent residency. The U.S. House approved a version of the bill in 2010, but the Senate came up five votes short. Af­ter the measure failed to pass, President Obama in 2012 signed the executive order creating DACA. (DACA and the DREAM Act are similar in their intent—protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation—but as an executive order, DACA could be undone as Obama’s successor tried to do. The DREAM Act would codify the protections as law.1)

 

Stan would take the DREAM Act one step further. He would ex­tend its provisions of conditional and eventual permanent residen­cy not just to children, but to their five million parents. Under his proposal, undocumented adults would receive legal status for three years and a work permit giving them time to begin meeting the re­quirements for permanent resident status. Essentially, employers would sponsor adult DREAMers until they achieved legal status, ensuring that most of the applicants for the program had a job.

 

DACA and the Temporary Protected Status program, which al­lows workers to stay in the United States on a temporary basis for employment purposes, provide similar, if temporary, protections from deportation, allowing immigrants to remain and work in the United States. ID and Tax would take a similar approach but make those protections ongoing on a renewable basis that would be re­viewed every three years.

 

Of course, this provision only works if the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor cooperate to ensure that employers hire workers as full-time employees and deduct taxes from their paychecks, rather than classifying them as indepen­dent contractors. Currently, the two agencies share little infor­mation. By forming a joint task force to address immigration, they could increase compliance for both taxes and working conditions, giving immigrants a process for reporting violations without fear­ing deportation. At the same time, the measure would increase federal tax revenue.

 

Stan’s plan requires the Department of Homeland Security to complete thorough background checks on immigrants already in the country and develop a secure, tamper-proof form of identifi­cation rather than the easily forged Social Security card. Provid­ing an ID to every immigrant who is in the United States illegally would allow the government to know who they are and where they live. In addition, allowing them to get a driver’s license would give immigrants greater mobility, helping reduce regional labor short­ages without compromising security. Many illegal immigrants in Texas, for instance, are afraid to leave the state because they can’t get a driver’s license.

 

“That would be a step that brings people to conventional legal employment relationships,” said Mark Erlich, with Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “It’s a positive step for those workers, for the industry, and for taxpayers as a whole. It takes these workers out of the shadows, so that they have the rights that go along with being an employee, which include the right to a minimum wage, the right to overtime payments, the right to anti-discrimination laws, the right to form union organizations, all of those rights come along with being an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you have none of those rights. You’re basically on your own.”

 

Stan’s plan would direct ICE to stop auditing employers. He says the current system punishes them twice—once by forcing them to fire workers and then again when disreputable competi­tors hire the workers their former employers trained. The agency should instead work with the IRS to ensure that undocumented workers are properly identified and taxed.

 

Once those basic objectives are in place, Stan wants Congress to develop a path to legal status for all immigrants who are al­ready in the United States. Critics call it amnesty, but deporting millions of workers who contribute to the economy would create a huge labor shortage in industries including construction. That in turn could cause escalating prices for homes, offices, and oth­er real estate, Stan contends. Multiplied across agriculture, meat packing, and other immigrant-dominated business, the economic fallout becomes profound.

 

Finally, the plan requires that both U.S. borders be secured by reasonable means. He suggested neither a physical wall nor a met­aphorical wall of fear and intimidation. Instead he’s proposing a systematic monitoring that takes advantage of new, more afford­able technology such as drones and motion sensors. The system would identify all workers and require entry into the E-Verify sys­tem. At the same time, employers would be required to pay all employment taxes on them.

 

The plan represents a feasible compromise that preserves bor­der integrity while addressing the economic realities of immigra­tion and providing the millions of undocumented workers a way out of the shadows, Stan said.

 

With Trump’s election, Stan realized he’d have to scale back be­fore he’d even had a chance to widely promote the plan he still be­lieves in. The president had been in office only seven months when Harvey struck and Houston clamored to rebuild, but Trump’s an­ti-immigrant rhetoric had poisoned the chance for rational debate, let alone adoption of Stan’s sweeping immigration proposals. By late 2017, Stan worried that any plan creating the possibility for millions of undocumented workers to become citizens would de­rail any attempts at reform. Instead, he regrouped around two cru­cial and specific tenets of his initiative: “ID and Tax.”

 

These provisions would identify undocumented immigrants already in the country and create a legal protection for them to work, ensuring that they pay taxes. The initiative would reduce many of the abuses endured by immigrant workers, allow them to work and remain in the country without fear of deportation. Because the government would have their personal information on file, security concerns would be reduced as well.

 

“If they’ve been here more than five years, they get an ID, and they get entered in the E-Verify system,” Stan said. “Then they go to work for an employer who puts them on the payroll and pays taxes. If employers don’t comply, the workers have recourse in the courts or with the government.”

 

Those provisions alone, Stan argues, would change the nature of the immigration debate. His program would remove employers’ excuses that paying undocumented workers overtime and bene­fits would be too expensive and cause companies to lose projects. If all employers faced the same requirements, the competitive landscape would be more level than it is now, Stan argues. He has a project in mind for testing his system: “If Trump is serious about building a wall, then let’s take the workers who are here, ID them, and let them build the wall.” He was only half joking.

 

Distrust would undoubtedly linger, but by providing a path to legal status, undocumented workers already in the U.S. would be able to secure a driver’s license, open a bank account, and partic­ipate openly in their communities. Law enforcement could again rely on immigrant neighborhoods to help with community polic­ing and doctors and nurses would have access to reliable medical records on the immigrant patients they were treating. Immigrant parents would no longer fear being arrested by ICE agents if they show up at their children’s schools.

 

“Employers like myself would find the employees we need to rebuild this city—not with the labor that will be exploited be­cause of immigration status, but with legal workers paying taxes and protected with insurance,” Stan wrote in the Chronicle in the fall of 2017.

 

It wasn’t the full-scale reform that Stan had long yearned for, but it would be a good first step. Without the help of illegal immi­grants, Texas’s recovery would likely be painful and protracted.

 

Houston is a city eager to embrace its rebirth and its long his­tory of welcoming immigrants could represent a turning point. As the 2020 hurricane season dawned, a reporter called Stan and asked him if the city had the workforce it needed to recover from another major storm. Stan’s answer was immediate: No. Not even close. The rebuilding effort from Harvey was still dragging on be­cause of labor shortages the last time. Stan, however, continues to hope that Houston’s inclusiveness and vibrant immigrant com­munity will seed a solution to America’s long-deficient immigra­tion policies. And with those advantages—bolstered by rational debate and thoughtful action—might also come hope for the fu­ture of the construction industry. It’s a goal to which Stan Marek, like his father before him, has devoted his life.

 

To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

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‘Everybody told me I was too big of a target’

RM-ICE-agents

The following is the first in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

On a Monday morning in 2009, the phone chirped on Stan Marek’s desk, and he snapped up the receiver. It was still early, and he wasn’t expecting any calls, let alone visitors. On the other end, the front-desk receptionist sounded nervous. Half a dozen men in dark windbreakers had filed into the lobby moments ear­lier and demanded to see the owner of the company. They looked like FBI agents, she said. The company Stan runs with his two cousins was founded by their fathers, and this family business has prided itself on following the rules for more than eighty years. He knew the men in the lobby weren’t from the FBI, but he also knew they were from the federal government, and he wouldn’t like what they were going to say.

Stan told the receptionist he would be right there. He sighed as he set the receiver down and glanced out the plate-glass win­dow behind his desk. He had a corner office, but it didn’t offer much to look at. Other CEOs in Houston stared down from lofty skyscrapers, but his view was only one story off the ground and overlooked an area where his employees were loading drywall onto trucks to be sent to job sites. Beyond that were Deconstructed cover_Revised1train tracks, then the Interstate 610 loop that encircles downtown Houston. The Marek offices were on land that his father and uncles bought in 1960. Stan oversaw a construction enterprise, known simply by his family name, Marek, that stretched across the Southwest and employed more than two thousand people. He was proud of the family company, which he and his cousins continued to build. He wondered if the men in the windbreakers waiting in his lobby could appreciate the sacrifices three generations of Mareks had made to get to this point.

Stan walked down the chrome-railed staircase, across the breeze­way his construction crews used as a loading dock in the mornings when they arrived for their shifts and badged himself into the main building. He was five feet, eight inches tall, and although he was in his late sixties, he didn’t look like it. His hair was graying, but he walked quickly, like someone who still had a lot to get done. Across the expansive, two-story lobby, he could see the agents. On the back of their jackets, in big yellow letters, was one word: ICE— the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As Stan ap­proached the agents, he knew this was the moment he and a great many other employers in Houston had been dreading.

ICE was formed as a division of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The assaults on U.S. soil reshaped a host of government programs and created several new federal agencies. ICE combined the old U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturaliza­tion Service; Congress infused it with a unique combination of civil and criminal authority.

As Stan walked toward them, the ICE agents turned to face him. The administration of President Barack Obama, who took office in 2009, had promised a new “get tough” policy on ille­gal immigration. It focused less on rounding up undocumented workers and instead directed government enforcement efforts at the companies that employed them. Except for agriculture, no in­dustry in Texas employed more undocumented workers than the construction business, and Marek was one of the biggest specialty subcontractors in town. It got its start hanging drywall and later expanded into carpentry, flooring and painting—basically any in­terior construction work that a developer required. Marek’s size may have put it on ICE’s radar for one of the agency’s first work­place audits in Houston, or it may have been Stan’s frequent calls to senators, representatives, and Obama administration officials stressing the need for immigration reform. “Everybody told me I was too big of a target,” Stan recalled.

Other employers who pub­licly called for immigration reform felt that ICE targeted them unfairly for audits, too, said Jacob Monty, a lawyer in Houston who works with companies on immigration issues. “Employers that speak out, they sometimes get retaliated against by ICE,” Monty said. “And the public often misunderstands and thinks ‘Oh, they just want cheap labor.’ I know Stan, and that’s not what he wants.”

Nevertheless, Stan, a lifelong Republican, now found himself targeted by a Democratic administration, and he couldn’t help but wonder as he approached the agents in his lobby if his vocal support for immigration reform was to blame for what he knew was about to happen. As he shook the lead agent’s hand, the man said: “Mr. Marek, we’re going to do an I-9 audit.” I-9s are official­ly known as Employment Eligibility Verification forms. Employ­ers are supposed to complete one for each worker, verifying the person’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States. ICE wanted to audit Marek’s records to see if the company had any employees who were in the country illegally.

Stan felt a lump rise in his throat. Marek tried to confirm the citizenship of workers, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. By law, employees could provide as many as thirty-two different kinds of identification, and it was difficult to assess the accuracy of each. Besides, the most common form of ID, the Social Security card, is among the easiest to forge.

“How long do we have to get the information?” Stan asked.

“Seventy-two hours,” the agent replied.

“Well, do you mind if I get with my attorney?”

“Sure, but you’ve got seventy-two hours and then we want to see your I-9s,” the agent said.

“Well,” Stan stammered as the magnitude of the task sank in, “we’ve got a lot of people.”

“Well, you’ve got seventy-two hours,” the agent said again. He turned and headed for the door, and the other agents followed.

Stan returned to his office and called his attorney, Charles Fos­ter. Foster had been practicing immigration law in Houston for some forty years. He grew up in McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border, working side by side with immigrants, both legal and ille­gal. As a lawyer, he’d served as an adviser on immigration to pres­idents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as aiding Republican and Democratic candidates including Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Hillary Clinton.1 His firm, Foster LLP, is one of the largest immi­gration law firms in the country.

Foster convinced ICE to extend Marek’s deadline by a couple of weeks and the company complied. It was a big task: The agency wanted I-9s going back three years, which meant producing some three thousand documents. The agents also wanted to see the IDs each worker had presented at the time they were hired. The Social Security card or other identification had to appear authentic—Marek couldn’t be expected to detect a good forgery, but the card had to have the correct numbers in the proper configurations, and it had to look like a real Social Security card. If Marek had accept­ed any obvious forgeries, company executives could face fines or even jail time. Marek used an electronic government system known as E-Verify to confirm its employees’ immigration status. E-Verify, though, wasn’t fool-proof. If workers had what appeared to be a valid ID, it would pass the E-Verify check. Employers like Marek could follow all the rules and still wind up hiring undocu­mented workers.

The ICE agents returned with the results of their audit a few months later. All of the I-9s had been filled out correctly, which meant Marek wouldn’t face penalties. But ICE had found that about two hundred workers had improper documentation. Their identification didn’t match Social Security Administration re­cords. The agency gave the employees ninety days clear up the discrepancies. If they didn’t, the agents told Stan, he would have to fire them.

Marek is a privately held company—the only shareholders are Stan and his cousins, Bruce and Paul Marek—and it’s the sort of business that values employee longevity. It routinely holds com­pany rallies in the two-story lobby where it honors long-time em­ployees for their service: Tenures of thirty to forty years are com­mon. Stan knew each of the two hundred workers, and he met with them individually to tell them about the ICE audit. Some had been with him for decades. They owned homes and had raised families in Houston. Marek provided them with health benefits and 401(k) retirement plans, and it paid their payroll taxes. But most of the two hundred, it turned out, were in the U.S. illegally. Some simply admitted their immigration status when Stan con­fronted them, others made up reasons why they couldn’t go to the Social Security office. Still others said they would but didn’t. Ultimately, Stan had to let most of the two hundred go.

Stan Marek sees himself as a champion of the working man. In an era in which more and more Americans earn a living by sitting in front of a computer screen, he still believes that people who work with their hands and use tools to make things should be able to earn a middle-class income. He isn’t oblivious to the changing workplace, and he recognizes that the demographics of his industry have shift­ed—in fact, he watched it happen. He knows that progress means businesses and industries must change. Marek, in fact, prides itself on embracing cutting edge technology— it’s testing virtual reality googles on the job site and has its own drone. The company seeks to cultivate a dedicated and diverse workforce. From the time of its founding, Marek has relied on first- and second-generation immi­grants from a wide range of countries.

But in some ways, Stan’s views on the workplace remain decid­edly old-fashioned. He believes a good employer takes care of his employees, and the employees, in turn, take care of the compa­ny by doing good work. Stan’s father taught him that lesson when he handed Stan the reins of the business in the early 1980s. Back then, the traditional employment model in construction started with the general contractor, who would oversee a building project. The general contractor hired subcontractors, like Marek, who had a workforce of employees who received hourly pay, overtime, ben­efits, workers’ compensation insurance, and job training. The sub­contractor paid payroll taxes and provided I-9s on all its workers.

In the past three decades, however, the model has changed. Fewer subcontractors have their own workers. Instead, they hire laborers they treat as independent contractors and pay them for piecework. In the drywall business, for example, these indepen­dent workers are paid by foot of wallboard hung, not by the hour. They receive no overtime, benefits, workers’ compensation in­surance, or employer-funded training. That leaves many workers earning poverty-level wages and no overtime pay for longer hours. The workers pay no taxes, have no insurance if they’re injured on the job, and essentially have no career path. They will never be promoted to a supervisor position because those jobs are held by the subcontractor who hired them. For many illegal immigrant workers, this is the only employment option. The arrangement has created a system that hurts the workers, leads to more acci­dents, mistakes and shoddy workmanship, and ultimately under­mines the industry’s future.

Stan has seen more of Marek’s competitors choose this path. Many subcontractors’ offices are staffed by a few white-collar em­ployees who manage a virtual workforce of low-paid, often un­skilled and ever-shifting laborers. Many of these workers are in the country illegally.

Stan thought about the irony of the situation. Marek believed in paying its employees well, providing workers’ compensation insurance in case they were injured, and offering the training they needed to do a quality job while making their job sites safer. Marek’s workers all had income taxes withheld from their checks, and they all paid into Social Security. Even if they had stayed on his payroll, the two hundred workers he had to let go would never receive the benefits of their Social Security contribution because the Social Security numbers they submitted to Marek were inval­id. In a strange way, they were actually strengthening the perpet­ually under-funded Social Security entitlement program for mil­lions of other retirees by paying in but not taking out.

Stan felt badly for the workers he dismissed. What would hap­pen to them? Would they be deported, forced to return to a coun­try many of them hadn’t seen in decades? How would they pro­vide for their families? After all, some had children who were U.S. citizens. By firing them, had he set in motion events that would tear families apart?

Even though Stan had to let them go, many of the workers re­mained loyal to him and stayed in touch. None of them was deport­ed. Instead, over the next few weeks, or in some cases, the next few days, they found other jobs. After all, these were skilled laborers who had been trained by Marek, which had a reputation for quality. They knew how to do the job right. The companies that hired them, though, did things differently. In most cases, the new employers paid five dollars an hour less than Marek paid. Their workers re­ceived no health or retirement benefits. No taxes were drawn from their paychecks because in most cases the workers were paid in cash or as independents who were responsible for their own tax­es—they received a 1099 Form from the Internal Revenue Service for their wages, rather than a W-2, if there were any record of their pay at all. There was no accident insurance or paid overtime, and the local emergency room was their health care provider.

The turn of events enraged Stan. On a purely business level, the employees he’d nurtured and trained were now competing against him at a lower cost. At the same time, these workers were more likely to become a greater burden on society than when they had worked for him. And the companies who hired them were re­warded for perpetuating a shadow economy created by decades of misguided immigration policy. Stan had witnessed the slow ero­sion of his part of the construction industry from one that offered careers to one that offered essentially day labor. He knew the in­dustry couldn’t continue on this path without paying a price in lost quality and compromised safety. He wanted something better for workers and for his industry, and he was determined to change immigration policy.

To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

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Sign up now for an exclusive discussion of my latest book, ‘Deconstructed’

I’ll be participating in a discussion of immigration issues and my new book, Deconstructed, with my co-author, Stan Marek, on Sept. 9. Sign up now! Sponsored by the Center for Houston’s Future.

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Pre-order now!

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What’s a virtual book signing?

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The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all to experiment with new things, and since we can’t have an in-person book signing, we decided to try a virtual one. Sign up for the Zoom meeting, and we’ll do a short reading, followed by an author Q&A. And yes, we’ll have signed copies of the The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens available.

If you can’t make the signing, and you’d still like an autographed copy, we’ve set up a special Amazon store. We’ll be offering a discount on autographed copies during the signing, so be sure to check back next week even if you can’t make the event.

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‘Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens’ out in hardcover and Kindle version

TBoone-3D-standing-croppedThe Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens, my account of the 2016 West Texas courtroom drama with attorney Chrysta Castañeda, is out. Despite some coronavirus-related delays, our distributor began filling orders on March 31. Amazon took a little longer, but the book went live on Amazon’s site on April 21. It’s now available for order and, ahem, reviews. We’ve also released a Kindle version.

Because the pandemic is keeping us from holding traditional book signings, we’re making signed copies available through the book’s website. Just click the button at the top and it will take you to the ordering page. Chrysta and I live in separate cities, so we had to ship the books back and forth to get them signed, and as a result, we’re charging a little more to cover the extra costs.

We hope to plan more events as businesses begin reopening, so stay tuned for more information.

 

 

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25 years later, I’m still trying to make sense of what I saw in Oklahoma City

Just after 9 a.m., the phone rang in my home office in Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas.

“Bloomberg, Loren Steffy.”

“Do you have the TV on?” It was Mary Schlangenstein, my counterpart in Houston.

“No,” I said, a little befuddled.

“Turn it on.  Any channel.”

The tiny black and white set flickered to life and as the image came into focus I saw a building that appeared to be sheared in a half.

“That’s the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City,” Mary said. “They’re saying it’s a gas explosion.”

“That doesn’t look like a gas explosion, does it?”

Mary had years of experience for wire services, and she’d covered lots of explosions and other disasters — far more than I had. But it seemed to me a gas explosion would come from inside the building and blow outward. This looked like someone has sliced a big chunk out of a layer cake.

“No, it doesn’t,” she said.

I don’t think I said it, but I remember one word flashing in my mind: bomb.

I took a deep breath. Twenty-five years ago, Bloomberg was still a young news organization, but we played on an international stage. I’d been a reporter for less than a decade — a business reporter. I’d spent most of my time writing about profits and mergers and new products. I’d helped cover a major plane crash early in my career, and once I’d spotted smoke off the freeway in Arlington, and landed the exclusive of how the gas station had caught fire. But I’d never handled anything like what I was about to head into.

I told Mary to wait about 10 minutes, then call our editors and tell them I was on my way to Oklahoma City. Because Bloomberg covered mostly business, and because most of the reporters in the main newsrooms rarely left their desks, I knew there would be a lengthy debate over whether I should go to the site or try to cover it by phone. I wanted to head that off and not lose precious time.

I’d recently read Foreign Correspondent by Robert St. John, a freelance writer who decided to ship off to Europe when World War II broke out. He figured he’d find somebody to write for once he got there. I figured if I got fired for going to the blast site, someone would hire me once I was there.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Mary called me on my Motorola flip phone, which was about as thick as a stack of five iPhones, and coached me through what I’d need to do. Locate the command center, she said, that’s where you’ll find out how they’re going to handle the briefings. She said it would be somewhere on the perimeter that investigators would have set up. I had a paper map of Oklahoma City on the seat beside me. I’d never been there. I figured I’d work my way around the courthouse until I found the command center.shutterstock_128037164

I was barreling down Interstate 35 at 85 miles an hour, and every few minutes, bland-colored sedans with flashing lights would rocket past me. I assumed it was the FBI and other federal agents coming up from Dallas.

I asked Mary to find me a place to stay. I figured hotels would be filling up quickly. She said she’d call Bloomberg’s travel agency and get them working on it.

I pulled into downtown and parked on the street, which was eerily deserted. As I walked toward the blast site my phone rang. Mary said the only room the travel agent could find was a two-room suite at the Waterford, which I later learned was the fanciest hotel in town.

As I hung up the phone, a man in a blue windbreaker approached me and reached out his hand.

“Is that a cell phone?”

I told him it was.

“I need to borrow it.” Then I saw the yellow “FBI” on his jacket. I handed him the phone. He turned away from me as he talked and I turned around. That’s when I saw the building. It look as if someone had decided to tear it down and stopped half way through. It was shorn from the roof to the ground. Slabs of concrete dangled from floors, and metallic stubbles of rebar jutted out in all directions. White columns that had once been interior supports stood in stark, linear contrast to the chaos that surrounded them.

The FBI agent ended his call and handed my phone back, thanking me. I asked him if he could direct me to the command center, and he told me they hadn’t set one up yet. They hadn’t even established the perimeter. I later learned that they were trying to figure out how to search for survivors without causing the rest of the building to collapse.

As I walked, glass crunched under my feet. Windows were blown out for blocks in every direction. For the next few days, every step I took downtown was punctuated with the sound of grinding glass.

It was unseasonably cold that day, and it started to rain in the afternoon. I hadn’t brought a jacket, and I later realized I’d forgotten to pack underwear and socks. I stood in the rain during the first press conference, then went to the Waterford. I walked into the opulent lobby soaking wet, bedraggled, with a notebook full of details about the search for bodies.

I filed a story then found a Dillard’s in nearby shopping mall. The store was deserted, and the clerks told me the mall would probably close early. I interviewed them and wrote a story about the economic impact of the blast (business reporter, remember?)

I retired to my two-room suite and ordered room service. The next day, there was a more formal press conference, and by then authorities were sure the blast had been caused by a bomb. The body count was still rising. I filed stories for Bloomberg’s fledgling radio operation. I would spend most of my days at the bomb site, then return to the hotel, file any updates to my stories and go to bed. In the other room, I kept the TV on all the time. The Tokyo bureau would call me at the start of their day, and I’d stagger into the next room and check TV coverage for any developments. Tokyo, having given me a few minutes to wake up, would call again and I’d give a radio report. I’d go back to sleep and start the process again when the London bureau called. Then I’d wake up early and head back out to the bomb site.

In all, I believe I was there for five days, but it was a blur. I interviewed the store clerk who alerted authorities to Timothy McVeigh, who would later be convicted and executed for the bombing. I interviewed Chris Fields, the firefighter who cradled a bloody 1-year-old Baylee Almon in his arms  — a now famous photo that came to symbolize the horror of that day.

One hundred sixty-eight people died that day — including Baylee Almon and 18 other children — and some 500 people were injured.

The bombing came one day after my oldest son’s birthday, and he would later write in a school essay that “my dad had to go and cover the bomb where the kids got killed.” My son turned 29 yesterday. Baylee Almon will be 1 forever.

One day, returning from the blast site I unlocked my car in the vacant lot where I’d left it. As I turned the key, a voice over my shoulder said, “you’re lucky, I was about to call the wrecker.”

I turned to the man and said, “Seriously?”

“I’m tired of all you people just thinking you can park here.”

I remembered my Texas plates. But the pettiness of the moment lingers. Amid all that death and destruction, with every footfall marked by the staccato of crunching glass, with day after day of body counts and explanations of how rescuers were risking their lives to extract bodies from the unstable rubble, one man could still muster enough — what? anger? bitterness? spite? — to begrudge a fellow human a parking space. Weren’t we all allied against the reminders of inhumanity that surrounded us?shutterstock_8833954

McVeigh wanted to send a message with senseless violence — but as is always the case, the message was unheard. The violence, the horror, the inhumanity he unleashed drown it out. No one ever dug through the rubble looking for the bodies of children and then asked the bomber what he was concerned about.

McVeigh ushered in the modern era of terrorism. 9/11 would overshadow Oklahoma City, but McVeigh’s tactics, his philosophy of ignorance and hatred, his belief in violence as a solution, and his abject immorality were no different than Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS. We see its tentacles in Charlottesville and Charleston, to name just two.

I didn’t return to downtown Oklahoma City for many years. In 2015, I was in town for some interviews for a book I was writing and went by the memorial where the Murrah Building once stood. At the entrance is an archway, with 9:01 — representing the time before the blast — etched in it. One hundred sixty-eight chairs are arrayed on a grassy hill, each engraved with the names of a victim. Each is placed at about the spot in the building where they were found. Nineteen of the chairs are smaller than the rest. At the other end is another archway with 9:03 on it, which is supposed to represent the first moments of recovery.

Recovery, of course, isn’t that clear-cut. The doorway revolves. We move on, and we come back. We search for solace in remembrance. We look for reason amid chaos, for sense amongst senselessness, but we find none.

 

 

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Pandemic Publishing?

Maybe that’s what I should have called the publishing imprint for The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens. Self-isolation can be a great time for books. People have time on their hands and they’re looking for distractions. Heck, I used to dream of being told I had to sit and read for days on end. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

The logistics of launching a title when traditional channels of distribution are slowing or severed isn’t easy. Many people, after all, are avoiding bookstores, just as they are other retail establishments.

Situations are changing rapidly, but for now, our printer’s facilities — all of which are in the U.S. — are still operating and Last Trial is being printed as planned. Our distributor, Texas A&M University Press, is still accepting orders, and its warehouse remains open. That means you can still pre-order Last Trial and the books will be shipped on to you once they arrive in the warehouse. However, you should expect some delays. Printing schedules seem to be stretching out a bit.

In fact, I received a notice from our distributor this morning that Amazon is temporarily pausing orders until April 5 for products that aren’t household staples, medical supplies or other high-demand items. That includes books. So, if you ordered Last Trial via Amazon it may take a little longer to reach you.

As you can imagine, any book signings or speaking engagements have also been canceled or postponed.

We at appreciate your patience. I, my co-author, the rest of the Stoney Creek Publishing team and our partners at TAMU Press are working to get books to you ASAP. We think you’ll find Last Trial is worth the wait.

If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, click here. Our website is standing by.

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The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens

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About a year ago, Dallas attorney Chrysta Castañeda told me she wanted to write a book about a case in which she’d represented T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oil tycoon and former corporate raider.

I’d written about Pickens for decades, and I’d met Castañeda while touring Pickens’ 100-square-mile ranch in the Texas Panhandle for a Texas Monthly story. I was familiar with Castañeda’s case, which involved a disputed oil deal in the Permian Basin, the hottest oil and gas prospect in the country, if not the world.

I agreed to work with her on the book, then waited to see what she delivered. After all, saying you want to write a book and actually writing it are two very different things. I soon learned why Castañeda earned the nickname “The Chainsaw.” She doesn’t just embrace challenges, she chews through them.

She turned in a riveting first-person account of the high-stakes courtroom drama, and I realized we had a unique book on our hands: the story of a Texas-sized legal battle told through the eyes of one of the few women trial lawyers who work in the oil and gas arena.

What’s more, the drilling prospect at the center of the dispute, the Red Bull, was, Pickens would later say, one of the biggest deals he’d ever been involved in. That’s saying something given that the man once tried to takeover Gulf Oil.

Pickens and Castañeda forged a bond in spite of their many differences. I found myself re-reading Charles Portis’ classic True Grit because their relationship reminded me a bit of the one between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn.

Pickens, however, was in declining health, and he died in September. That left us scrambling to finish the book. While he wasn’t involved in the writing or planning of it, we felt an increased urgency to get the book finished. We realized our book might just be the last word on Pickens’ legacy.

But few traditional publishers could put out a book as quickly as we wanted, which led to the next twist in this journey: I became a publisher. I put together a team of top-notch editors, designers and other publishing professionals and teamed up with Texas A&M University Press, which is distributing the book.

You’ll be able to see the results within the next month. Copies of The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens should be available online and in bookstores everywhere. I’m incredibly proud of this project, both as a co-author and as a publisher. You can find out more about the book — and pre-order a copy — on our website.

And of course, you can keep up with all my endeavors — including events related to my recent George P. Mitchell biography — on my personal site as well as the site of my new imprint, Stoney Creek Publishing Group.

 

 

 

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